Ice Climbing: Basics, Gear and Techniques - Moosejaw

Ice Climbing

So you thought that waterfall looked cool when it was 80 degrees all summer? Now that winter is around the corner, temps are dropping and you'll soon get a different view. New opportunities arise when the weather turns cold and ice climbing that waterfall is one of them. If you're in the North that is. No luck if you're in Florida or the Bahamas. Canadian folk, rejoice. Grab your ice tools and work your way up that majestic frozen waterfall and get your ice climb on.

ALPINE ICE - Alpine ice can be formed from compacted and aged snow, which consolidates into hard-packed ice over time. The term blue ice is often used here, as snow created without air creates ice with a blue hue. Alpine Ice is also millions of years old glacier ice. It features long approaches and routes and won't be nearly as vertical as Water Ice, but still feature steep sections (around 65 degrees).

WATER ICE - Formed from liquid water, so that's a pretty clever name. It can start from runoff or seepage from the ground. The weather will be different every year and even each day, causing the water to melt and freeze over time, creating bumps, ridges and icicles along the way. Water Ice is also a delicious summer treat if you're in Pennsylvania, but if you're in their neck of the woods it'll probably sound like "wooter ice". Just wanted to set the record straight, in case you're trying to ice climb in Pennsylvania.

MIXED CLIMBING - Mixed climbing will feature both ice and rock, offering up a delicious blend of fun. You'll need to bring both ice and rock climbing equipment to get the job done. Depending on the climb in question, you may need more rock than ice equipment, more ice than rock, or an even amount of both.

MAN-MADE - Some places don't have great access to natural vertical ice climbs, but they can most certainly be created. Sometimes all you need is a tower-like structure and pipes, hoses or spigots. For the Michiganders in the audience, check out the Peabody Ice Climbing Club in Fenton, Michigan. While it isn't natural, it is certainly a more accessible training ground for those in the Lower Peninsula.

This is an example of a bad ass vertical ice climb.
This is an example of a bad ass vertical ice climb. Photo © Petzl / G Broust


Sometimes you go up and sometimes you go down.


At some point you'll be moving upwards if you're looking to do some climbing to the top.

LEVEL OR LOW-ANGLE ice is flat and most often connected with glacier travel. It'll refer to a slope at 55 to 60 degrees and below.

VERTICAL ice will have you going upwards, at a right angle from a horizontal plane. Sorry to be so blunt about it.

This guy has climbed before. All around solid technique.
This guy has climbed before. All around solid technique. Photo © Petzl / T Vialletet



Pick a technique that works for your route.

FRENCH TECHNIQUE - Also called flat footing. Pick your poison on what you wish to call it, and let's talk about your crampons. This technique works best on level or low-angle sloped climbs and has you pretty much walking like a duck. Doing so allows all crampon points to be flat on the ice, delivering plenty of traction for moving upwards.

GERMAN TECHNIQUE - Another European country grabbed the naming dibs on this ice climbing technique. The German technique, or front pointing, is for use on vertical ice. Think "kick and step". You'll be kicking those front points of your crampons right into the wall of ice and then stepping upwards.

HYBRID TECHNIQUE - Will have you front pointing with one foot (top) and flat footing with the other (bottom). This type can be used as you transition from low angle to vertical ice. It'll reduce strain while also giving more security, but don't move those ice tools until your weight is firm and planted on the lower foot. You can alternate which foot is flat to provide rest to each leg.

TRIANGLE SHAPE - Many things are triangle shaped, such as a pizza slice, Toblerone® chocolate, carrots even have that look to them. When you're up on vertical ice, just think of your favorite triangle-shaped snack for help. Keeping your legs shoulder-width apart with your pick at the top center will help transfer most of your weight to your feet, giving you a sturdy base. This will make that ice much easier to conquer.

ICE TOOL TECHNIQUES - Different ways to handle your ice tools for climbing ice.

Cane and Cross-body - Techniques that help you to traverse flat terrain to low angle ice (less than 45 degrees). Cane is just like it sounds, utilize that ice tool as a cane over slippery ice. Cross body should be combined with side stepping, holding the head of the tool in your downhill hand while planting the spike across the body into the slope.

Low dagger, High dagger, and Anchor - These are all techniques used in higher angle slopes, over 45 degrees. Low and high dagger are essentially the same, holding the axe by the head and pushing the pick into the slope. The difference would be is low dagger should be placed at waist or chest level, while high dagger is placed above the head. Anchor requires you to hold the axe at the bottom, swing the pick into the ice, then work yourself higher upon the axe as you move upward. You'll eventually end up in low dagger position before resetting.

Traction - Traction technique is used for vertical ice, with two tools, as each is swung overhead and driven into the ice, one after another to move forward.

Make sure you know the grade of each climb before you start.
Make sure you know the grade of each climb before you start. Photo © Petzl / B Delapierre


Not your elementary school grades either.

Knowing the grade is essential.

Understanding the grading system is pretty important, especially as a beginner. When first starting out, jumping on a high-grade climb you're not ready for can prove dangerous. Keep in mind climbs are subjective and difficulty can change over time, as ice forms and changes differently. It will be different each time you climb.

North American Ratings use 3 categories, WI (water ice), AI (alpine ice) and M (mixed). WI and AI are graded 1-7 (1 being easiest, 7 being hardest and increasing in steepness). You may see a + next to some, which means the route will have additional technical elements, but not enough to give them a higher grade. Length will also factor into the grading of an ice climb. For instance, a short 10-15' section of "steep" grade 5 ice does not make it a grade 5. It's still a grade 4, but a 50' section of grade 5 ice DOES make it a grade 5. A little confusing, I know, but make sure you research the route you're interested in before heading out so your beginner skills don't end up on something you can't handle. Mixed routes use an open ended graded system, typically starting at M4 and going up to M15.

A Crevasse Kit can help save lives if you and your fellow climbers encounter some unforeseen danger.
A Crevasse Kit can help save lives if you and your fellow climbers encounter some unforeseen danger.
Do NOT skimp on your outerwear. Dress for the coldest temps and meanest winds you'll encounter during your climb.
Do NOT skimp on your outerwear. Dress for the coldest temps and meanest winds you'll encounter during your climb.

Safety + Unseen Dangers

Those invisible dangers are tricky.

Safety while climbing is key.

Safe Terrain and Ice is something you'll need to look out for so you can determine whether or not you should climb it. Hard ice is the best case scenario and the stuff you want to climb. Slushy.... not so much. Brittle ice is even worse as it may look climbable, but can break off in plates as you swing your ice tool into it. Climbers termed the falling off of those plates of ice "dinner plating". It sounds like they're prepping you for a meal but a face full of ice in your face is not appetizing at all.

FALLING - This might seem like an odd thing to say, as falling in general isn't ever a thing you want to happen. Yet when climbing vertical ice, you should NEVER fall. In comparison, falling when rock climbing is much safer, and the protection is much more reliable. The sharp objects (ice tools, crampons, ect) used make the falls much more dangerous, especially since they're usually attached, or very close to you. The ice screws used as protection are still absolutely necessary, but don't jump into climbs that are over your skill level, climb where you "know" you won't fall.

AVALANCHE - Always a danger when you're in the snowy mountains, so check out our page on avalanche safety here.

CREVASSE - In simple terms, a crevasse is a crack within a glacier. They can vary in size but are deep and narrow, which you can fall into. They can be covered with snow and hidden, so be sure to travel carefully over glaciers, whether you're mountaineering or just on your way to a vertical climb.

COLD TEMPERATURES - are a danger even when you're not ice climbing, so make sure to layer up and protect against frostbite. Your phalanges are beautiful.

My climbing gear spread. I lay it out like this all the time.
My climbing gear spread. I lay it out like this all the time.
Fletch all geared up and ready for our next ice climb.
Fletch all geared up and ready for our next ice climb.
Get mountaineering boots that are compatible with your crampons, as well as warm and rugged.
Get mountaineering boots that are compatible with your crampons, as well as warm and rugged.
Crampons go on a little something like this. Climb with crampons best suited for the angle of your climb.
Crampons go on a little something like this. Climb with crampons best suited for the angle of your climb.
The right gear will keep you safer, and make it easier to focus on your climb and reach that goal.
The right gear will keep you safer, and make it easier to focus on your climb and reach that goal.
Ice axes.... possibly the coolest looking gear on the planet, and essential for your ice climbs.
Ice axes.... possibly the coolest looking gear on the planet, and essential for your ice climbs.
Ice Screws are the equivalent of the cams, stoppers and pitons you use for rock climbing.
Ice Screws are the equivalent of the cams, stoppers and pitons you use for rock climbing.


All the right stuff.

Having the right equipment could make a difference.

If you're already a rock climber, then some of your equipment can be used for ice climbing as well. There are however specific ice climbing equipment items you'll for sure need to rent, buy or borrow.

HARNESS - This can be the same as what you use for rock climbing. You'll need to be sure it fits over additional layers of clothing however, so make sure to try it on first. Adjustable leg loops are a huge help when it comes to layering up. If you don't already have a harness or want to upgrade for this particular sport, there are ice climbing-specific harnesses. Besides adjustable leg loops, they often include ice clipper slots, which are specialized loops for hooking holsters onto your harness for your ice screws.

HELMET - Your helmet can also be used for rock or ice climbs. You may want to ensure you can fit a beanie underneath, but most modern soft and hard shell jackets built for climbing also feature helmet-compatible hoods.

MOUNTAINEERING BOOTS - You've gotta put something on your feet and trust me there are many options to choose from. Now you just have to swiftly decide between stiff, flexible, warm, less-warm, toe welts, heel welts and more. Most importantly however will be fit. If it's comfortable for you, then you'll be happy during the climb. Grabbing a pair featuring full toe and heel welts is also beneficial, as this will allow you to get a step-in crampon binding, which will work best for kicking into hard ice.

Plastic Boots are also referred to as double boots, as the plastic exterior is separate from the removable, inner boot. They are pretty darn stiff, work well with crampons and are often warmer.

Leather Boots are incredibly durable when messing about on sharp ice and rock while also being comfortable enough to hike in after breaking them in. If you go this route, you'll want a pair that features toe and heel welts, a stiff shank and a hard toe and heel for foot protection.

Synthetic Boots are lightweight, comfortable (less break-in period) but tend to be softer, leading to less support when encountering hard ice.

CRAMPONS - You're not going far without a toothy pair of foot claws. They'll give you the traction necessary to climb the slippery, upward sloping and vertical ice.

Dual-Point crampons have.... two points in the front. Go figure. You'll find them in horizontal or vertical frontpoints. Horizontal are great all-rounders, best for walking on low-angle slopes. Vertical frontpoints are better for steep, vertical and mixed route ice.

Mono-Point crampons have a single frontpoint. They work well with technical ice and mixed climbing due to them being able to fit in various small cracks along the way.

Modular Frontpoints allow you to replace the frontpoint only if it becomes damaged. A great option for those constantly on mixed routes.

BINDING SYSTEM - You've gotta attach 'em to your boots somehow. Otherwise they won't be of much help. With three options to choose from, you'll need to base it on what type of boots you have.

Strap Bindings are easiest to put on as well as transfer between different pairs of boots. No need for a heel or toe welt here, but not very efficient for vertical climbs.

Step-in Bindings will only work with boots that have a toe and heel welt. If your boots don't have these, then you'll have nothing to attach these crampons to. Advantageous on technical climbs however.

Hybrid Bindings are the best of both worlds, featuring a strap at the front and heel clip at the back. Pretty darn easy to get them on your boots, so you can spend more time climbing and less time adjusting.

ICE AXES AND ICE TOOLS - These don't just look cool when pictured on a webpage. They look even cooler in person. A traditional ice axe is longer and used in general mountaineering, for walking low-angle snow and glaciers. In that case you'll only need one, but if you're heading towards vertical ice, you'll need two ice tools, also described as a technical axe. They're shorter and have a distinct look due to the curved shaft.

Hammer or Adze is what you'll find opposite from the ice pick. A hammer can be used for pounding in a piton, another option for protection on a route. An adze looks like a tiny shovel and can be used for cutting steps, digging snow anchors and more. When it comes to the traditional ice axe, it will feature an adze, while ice tools can have either option. Back in the day, climbers would choose to have one with adze and one with hammer, but times have changed. It's now more common to have both ice tools with a hammer when technical ice climbing. Anything you would previously do with an adze is now done with the pick, and it's much easier.

Leash or Leashless is pretty self-explanatory, but worth a mention. A leash will attach to your wrist or harness and prevent you from losing the ice tool in event of a fall or, just plain dropping it. Leashless tools cradle the hand for more security, and can offer more freedom of hand placement as you're less restricted. These days, you probably won't see anybody using a leash when climbing technical ice, so ditch the training wheels and hold on tight.

Ice Pick Curve is the pointy end.

Classic Curve is also called a positive, and is found on most mountaineering axes. A great option for self-arrest and still functions when the icy mountainside gets steeper.

Reverse Curve or Reverse Position positive is what you'll find on most ice tools. The best part about this pick curve is they'll be much easier to pull out of the ice. When you're constantly using your arms to get up that vertical ice, you'll be thankful for the energy savings the reverse curve provides.

ICE SCREWS are to ice climbing as cams, stoppers and pitons are to rock climbing. They serve as the protection necessary in a fall. They can also be used at belays as anchor points. Since these are the modern days, the current ice screws are tubular and have a handle at the top which you can turn for easier entry and exit of the screw itself. The tubular shape allows ice cores to be removed easier. They come in different lengths and the amount you bring on your excursion depends on a few factors such as ice conditions, route (pure ice or mixed?), and how many you actually own.

ROPE for ice climbing is pretty dang similar to rope used for rock climbing. You can choose from a whole bunch of different diameters, but the main difference will be the treatment. Ice climbing rope should be dry treated, this way the rope won't soak up all that moisture.

CARABINERS + QUICKDRAWS can be the same as your rock climbing carabiners and quickdraws. If you don't already have any however, look into wiregate carabiners and draws that feature them, as they'll be lighter and less likely to freeze up in cold temperatures.

BACKPACKS that are climbing specific are the best option here. For ice climbing specifically, you'll mostly want to make sure your pack as enough space to carry all the extra gear and layers you may need.

CLOTHING + OUTERWEAR - Outerwear is incredibly important when venturing into ice climbing due to the lower temperatures you will encounter.

Layers - Start with a base layer that will wick moisture, yeah, let's just call it what it is, sweat. Cotton won't get the job done, it'll get soaking wet, heavy and you'll have a bad time. Wool or synthetic base layers will keep you comfortable as you exert energy and sweat your way to the top of the climb. Due to cold temperatures however, wear or at least pack along a midlayer. This can be a fleece or insulated jacket, even a vest. A solid boost of warmth between your base layer and outer shell will go a long way when the sun hides or the weather changes for the worse.

Soft Shell Jackets are the preferred exterior layer of most ice climbers due to the constant physical exertion of the activity. The soft shells block wind, resist moisture and allow your body to breathe much better than a hard shell. Not to say hard shell jackets don't have their place. If the climbing route is extremely wet, grab that hard shell and climb on.

Gloves are the best way to keep those fingers warm and toasty. You'll probably end up carrying 3 to 5 pairs of them. You'll need a range of glove weights/warmth: lightweight, medium, and thick. For the approach, a pair of lightweight gloves will do. The dexterity is great and your exertion level will keep your hands warm along the way. When actually climbing, a medium weight pair featuring a grip on the palm will keep hands warm and provide dexterity necessary for grabbing ice tools and screwing in ice screws. Bonus if they're water resistant or waterproof. Some companies do make ice climbing-specific gloves, featuring waterproof protection, dexterity and warmth. You'll want 2-3 of medium weight gloves, so you can change out the wet ones for dry ones along the way. The third pair you'll want is a toasty warm, thick, insulated pair for when you're belaying. Standing still calls for bigger, warmer gloves.


New to the sport of ice climbing or seasoned vet, the cold winters has something awesome to offer. If you're new to it all but want to give it a try, get started with a class or get together with a friend that is already into the sport first. Classes and ice festivals are a great opportunity to try the sport without having to purchase gear immediately, plus you can watch and hang out with some really cool athletes. As for you veterans of ice, you know what it's all about. The chill in the air, sounds of the ice, the adrenaline rush as you make it to the top. Maybe you can bring a newbie out this year, growing the sport one pal at a time. As always stay safe, but have the most fun possible.

Black Diamond Ice Climbing Gear Petzl Ice Climbing Gear Camp USA Climbing Gear Arcteryx Outerwear Grivel Ice Climbing Gear La Sportiva Mountaineering Boots Sterling Climbing Ropes
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